Centre County Teacher-Writers | Opt for kids by opting out of testing

April 16, 2014 

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    “What Is the Purpose of Assessment in our Schools?” will be the topic of discussion at the April 24 Public Issues Forum. Read more on Saturday’s CDT opinion page.

Editor’s note: Centre County Teacher-Writers is a group of teachers who gather to write about life in the classroom and the issues that concern them as educators. The group includes pre-K-12 teachers and teacher educators from the Centre Region who support each other as writers. Columns by members of this group run on the Views page on a Wednesday each month.

I’m a mom and a professor of education.

Many times over the past month, as State College schools and the rest of the districts in Pennsylvania have conducted state-mandated standardized testing, fellow moms and dads at the playground, grocery store and church have asked me if they should opt their kids out of standardized testing.

Will you?

My own kids, Emily, a first-grader at Park Forest Elementary and William, a toddler, are not yet subject to our Pennsylvania System of School Assessment testing, which is first administered in third grade.

However, if the current federal and state policies remain in place when my daughter reaches third grade, her father and I will opt her out. That’s not all we will do.

On April 7, the Centre Daily Times and many other newspapers around the country ran a column by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., schools who has been a highly visible proponent of “reforms” that have raised the number of tests our children take and the stakes attached to them.

Rhee suggests parents who opt out are getting in the way of needed progress, and in a series of arguments too long and too wrong for me to address in detail here, she assures parents that the tests can be fixed and that only bad schools and teachers really devote much time or energy to the testing anyway.

She then chides parents who want to protect their children from stress and discomfort that can negatively affect a son or daughter’s whole attitude toward school. “Suck it up” is her argument.

As a parent and scholar well-informed about the history of the testing movement and its effects, I find Rhee’s arguments misleading and condescending. Parents opt out not to shield wimpy children from some inevitable and unforgiving “real world,” but to act in a way that reflects our understanding of the real world to the best of our ability.

We do it not from reluctance, but as resistance. My family will opt our kids out of state testing as a protest not simply for our own kids, but for all kids.

And it is not a protest against schools, but a protest in support of schools.

I prefer that educational decisions about my kids be made, to the greatest extent possible, by people who know them. The school principal and teachers know Emily and will know William, in a deep and nuanced way as learners and people.

Who knows better, for example, what book might be the next right book to challenge and excite my daughter than her own teachers? They are the ones who taught her to read, who sit alongside her daily as she reads and writes and who are the first witnesses to all her developing skills.

I also resist the conversion of my children — the living, breathing, laughing, ticklish, mysterious, muddy and exasperating individuals in whom my hopes reside — into data points.

The state of Pennsylvania assembles data on all students — information from testing, demographic and household information, discipline, special needs and more — in a massive database known as the Pennsylvania Information Management System, cumulative for your child even into college.

The data are then used in ways I find abhorrent. One way is to link teacher evaluation to the test scores in an attempt to shape teachers’ work with struggling students by tactics of shame, punishment and coercion.

As an education researcher and a mom, I know that nobody can learn or improve when busy defending oneself.

Another use of the data is by for-profit companies that stand to make money selling tests to the state and selling texts and materials to school districts.

I don’t think it’s Emily and William’s job to submit to testing — testing not helpful to them or to their own teachers — so that for-profit entities can thrive and grow. My priority is for all kids to thrive and grow.

And so, for all kids, I won’t just opt out and then stop. It’s not enough for me to quietly remove my own children from a bad situation. We must also try to change the situation so that other kids — not just the suburban kids of professors, but all kinds of kids — have the same protection.

And so, I will continue tell other people about my decision and urge them to do the same. We could opt out together, as did more than 70 percent of students in some Brooklyn, N.Y., schools and more than 90 percent in one Connecticut high school this month.

As a form of protest, opting out only works if it is public and if it spreads.

Anne Elrod Whitney is an associate professor in the College of Education at Penn State. Readers may write to her at awhitney@psu.edu. For information about how to do opt out, go to optout.com or fairtest.org.

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